Zanki Zero: Last Beginning is a first-person dungeon crawler meets visual novel with Danganronpa DNA, and this survival-mystery-investigation offers the sort twists and turns you’d associate with the aforementioned murderfest. The hook here, however, is that as you play through each of the eight protagonists’ stories, life and death takes on an entirely new meaning. Because everyone’s a human clone.
Illuminate! A Brighter Future! For Humanity!
To these guys, humanity shuffled off this mortal coil seemingly overnight. Looking at the ruins of buildings and mother nature’s influence, it’s clearly not the morning after (the night before) though. Just as fast as the questions come, cryptic answers are thrown back in equal measure, giving rise to even more questions. These are delivered by way of TV clips of Earth’s last remaining show; the messed-up cartoon, Extend TV. Featuring host Mirai, an adorable talking sheep, and young joker, Sho Terashima. These videos act as survival guides for your team, giving out missions that directly aid your survival chances, while also seemingly revelling in the group’s misfortune.
With no means of interaction with anyone linked to the show, the team can only watch, listen and take cues. Mirai’s ‘straight-man’ routine bounces off Sho’s demonic idiocy brilliantly, making light of the squad’s predicament while giving them clues and facts about the state of the world, as well as chillingly intimate knowledge of the protagonists’ personal life.
At the centre of this post-apocalyptic setting, initially at least, is Haruto, the young suicidal journalist. The dude has had a rough time but he’s not about to tell anyone, preferring relative anonymity, especially surrounding his dark secret. I’m over-egging it, much like he does. When revealed, it’s like one of those situations where you get pushed into someone and knock their drink over, yet they get shirty with you rather than direct their anger at the douche that pushed you. Only Haruto’s blaming himself. Silly boy.
Anyway, after controlling Haruto and learning his history, you move on to the next character; one of the mismatched crew consisting of a sadist farmer, a timid florist, a super muscular doctor-in-training, an energetic police officer, a girl with a robot arm, a rich company heiress and a bondage artist, each with their own secrets that will be slowly revealed. This approach was refreshing and allowed me to get into the mindset of other characters, showing they’re more than their outward appearances. While some are better written than others, none were mundane, and many are well-realised.
The tropical Garage Island is the crew’s new home and surviving there isn’t easy. The self-sufficient team have to manage water supplies, build their own lodgings and facilities as well as hunting their own food from the wildlife that inhabits the island. It means having to ensure your team has the requisite expertise through assigning skill points to cook or, say, build a toilet. Spreading these points across your team to reach a particular goal is laborious and was frought with time-sapping indecision on my part. Let me be clear; I love distributing skill points in games and, usually, the more options, the better, however Zanki‘s upgrades contain too many sub-catergories for their relative gains. At times, pouring skill points into a a single skill made me lag behind drastically, requiring a boring grind, with practical gains arriving too slowly. Furthermore, spreading them thin came with equal problems. I accept it’s part of the game’s balance, but it’s simply too slow at times, especially in the early game.
Being stuck on an island gives rise to interesting narrative opportunities that are tackled in unique ways, mainly due to the pacing of the most important revelations. There’s a sick joy to be found in the despair portrayed in the characters’ reactions to their gradual understanding of their situation, and watching the line blur between comrade and enemy can be fascinating at times. Team dynamics on this journey were always going to be wrought with doubt over motives and Zanki Zero did a stellar job of keeping me guessing and, more importantly, curious. As is often the way of the storytelling in Japanese mystery games, the plot can be weaving one too many threads at any one point, however, the attention level I maintained to this thrillingly layered and obtuse adventure proved worth the investment. Staying alert is paramount, something that can be said for dungeons and combat.
Aside from battles, gameplay is split between exploration, survival mechanics, party balancing, relationship building, base construction and item management. If this sounds like a lot, it’s because it is.
From the game’s description and the way the party’s stats are displayed, it would be reasonable to expect turn-based battles, but Zanki does away with the idea in favour of an action-based combat system. While I appreciate the attempt to try something different, the execution is a little lacking. Enemies are visible on screen and real-time battles occur seamlessly with all movement tackled in the same way as normal field/dungeon movement. Hitting the attack button causes the highlighted party member to strike, initiating a cool down before the next attack, before which point you can select another member to attack. An auto-cycle option allows for more fluid combat, switching to the next character as soon as your current one has attacked, which also allows for a fast flurry of strikes. A group attack (think Persona’s all-out attack, but less flashy), can be initiated by holding the attack button to charge, allowing you to combine the attacks of two to four members at any given time.
Bar a few variants, that’s pretty much the size of it. Attacks types and proficiency are dependent on multiple factors beyond the character’s basic stats, including the obvious; weaponry, skill points attributed to combat, but additionally the character’s age group and even their relationship to other members also contribute. From the defensive perspective, there’s little else. The side from which you get attacked determines who suffers damage so things can quickly heat up when surrounded by enemies. Boss battles and enemy dynamics are limited by the grid-based layout.
Clone skills, gained from parasitic organsims called Cliones, become a main stay and, without saying too much, your party start to use their unique position and knowledge to augment their talents in some more interesting ways (special moves, heals, buffs but with some added visual flair as well as enivornmental manipulation, such as smashing through walls). Overuse comes with a risk, which means limited use, making these skills feel like a welcome novelty.
Movement across the Zanki’s maps works in typical JRPG first-person dungeon crawler fashion; it’s all tied to a grid, with motion contained in block-by-block steps, and turning done in clean, on-the-spot 90-degree spins. Standard stuff so far. Fortunately, although there’s no escaping the usual copy/paste job in this sort of game; a necessity in environments of this size, each dilapidated area is brimming with clues of what could have happened when an entire civilisation was left behind. Dungeons reveal themselves as the plot progresses in the form of drifting islands surrounding Garage Island. Each dungeon links to the past of one of the characters and a story is revealed by locating all the TVs and watching each episode of the dark, but comical Extend TV. Think Fallout’s Vault Boy cartoons in tone.
Zero Genome Project
Throughout the game, the team faces an unfortunate side-effect of the cloning process. Each new body is finite, much like a normal body, the difference being that clones age, and ultimately die, over the course of days rather than years. In-game, this meant yet another element to manage. Each team member has several life stages, effecting their abilities and appearance. A child, for example, will not have as great a capacity for carrying items, whereas their adult equivalent can bear the extra weight. When descending towards middle-age and the more senior years, you’re facing the prospect of losing a team member and the contents of their bag. Fear not, for death is meaningless when you have a limitless supply of new bodies! Every character has an ‘X-Key’, a mysterious metal object that sits where the belly button once was. If someone dies, one must simply retrieve the X-Key and take it back to base. During dungeon crawling, I found the aging mechanic to be the biggest source of tension and deliberately pushed my luck consistently when wanting to explore the next section of the dungeon. It’s a risk/reward part of the survival cycle that felt tightly-woven into the narrative and works well, with a well-structed UI helping you to keep track of who’s reaching their limit.
Revival of your teammates takes place in the hub area through use of yet another mysterious convention; The Extend Machine, an arcade machine of unknown origin. This machine is missing parts and your main mission to recover these parts in the hopes of improving the cloning process. Points, which are gathered through battle, are spent in the Extend Machine. Options are opened once SCORE points are used to revive your characters. For example, if your character dies of old age, spend enough points and they’ll manage a to hang on to their dentures for a little longer next time. These buffs, known as Shigabane, are gradually built through the unusually short death/revival loop and give extra nuisance to team builds. I found these to be more effective in immediate gains than skills points and I spent time thinking about how to use the mechanic to my advantage, while grinding out the necessary skill points.
The daunting prospect of managing the stress levels of the team, their stamina, their age requirements and their bladders adds to the shopping list of RPG mechanics crammed into Zanki Zero’s survival list. Truth is, these elements aren’t as overbearing as they seem on paper, being a case of ‘one affects the other’ and keeping them all at bay usually means keeping everyone fed, rested and empty-bladdered.
Switching difficulty settings works in the same vein as games like Diablo in that greater rewards and experience are gained through cranking up the challenge. I found myself panicking over losing key development items too much to push beyond the normal difficulty more than a handful of times, though having the option was good when wanting to skip some of the grind. Fortunately grinding isn’t often necessary as most of the key items you need can be found through exploration and boss battles.
By striking the right visual blend of grimy post-civilisation, where nature’s had its way with the land, and the bright over-saturated tones, Zanki Zero absolutely nails the tone of the narrative and anime charaterisations. Ayako Nakao’s character designs are diverse and memorable, and seeing the different stages of life gradually changing their apppearances is as interesting as it sounds. Credit to the UI designers for managing to control the chaos of a thousand systems. It’s hard to keep track of everything and there could be a few extra shortcuts here and there but it’s a slick and functional untaking, despite the obvious challenges.
There is a lot of text in the game, as can be expected from a story-dense Spike Chunsoft effort, as such, there was a sacrifice in the amount of voice acting. All major story beats are fully voiced, but most lines go with grunts and noises.
Tomomi Ohashi’s elegant, yet frantic soundtrack offers some absolute gems that wouldn’t be entirely out of place in one of the Masafumi Takada masterworks (Danganronpa, No More Heroes, The Silver Case). Having the ability to choose your own tracks as you explore is the icing on this heavy layer-cake.
Overall Score: 8.5/10
Zanki Zero gives player a lot to juggle and at some point, you’re going to drop the ball. That’s by design though and slots neatly into the survival theme. However, a lacklustre combat system and a dull, constant need to shuffle items around your inventory holds the game back from true greatness. If you can deal with that, the rest of the mechanics are fun, and the story is something truly special. The stiff movement and camera control will put off many a player but as long as you’re familiar with the type of game you’re getting into, there’s zero dilemma.
Format: PS4 (Reviewed), PC, PS Vita
Publisher: Spike Chunsoft
Age Rating: PEGI 16
Release Date: 09/04/19
Review copy provided by publisher